In Cambodia, a Deportee Breakdances to Success

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Cambodian hip hop trainer Tuy Sobil, right, trains a boy in hip hop dance at his club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 12, 2009

Tuy Sobil, who goes by the street name K.K., joined the Crips in Long Beach, Calif., when he was 13, started smoking crack, and was in jail for armed robbery by the time he was 18. After serving two years in Taft Prison in California and another three years in an immigration detention facility, the U.S. deported him to Cambodia in 2004 — even though he had never set foot in the country, couldn't speak the local language, and had a son back in California. "When I first came here at first I was scared," K.K. said. "You're always thinking you don't have anybody there."

Now on the eve of his 32nd birthday, K.K. has become one of the most admired men in Cambodia, running an organization called Tiny Toones in Phnom Penh that mentors and provides education to thousands of kids every year. Tiny Toones has earned write-ups in the local and international media, and his breakdancing group has spawned copycat troupes across the capital. In 2008, K.K. even performed in Hong Kong in front of President Bill Clinton — the same man who signed the law that got K.K. deported. Now, if K.K. gets his way, his program that turns hip-hop culture into an educational tool will reach thousands more of Cambodia's most vulnerable kids. "K.K. represents the opportunity to explore and discover your potential," says Holly Bradford, the founder of a local NGO that K.K. used to work for. "It's very appealing to people in Cambodia."

Despite these successes, K.K. will never be allowed to visit his mother or nine-year-old son back in California. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which stipulates that any non-citizen living in the United States can be deported if convicted of an aggravated felony. From 1997 to 2005, about 675,000 non-citizens were deported for their crimes under the law, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But for six years after IRRIRA was passed, Cambodia refused to accept the deportees, believing that they would be a burden on an already burdened country. Following the Vietnam War, the U.S. accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, granting them asylum and permanent residency. Laos and Vietnam still won't accept deportees from the U.S., but in 2002 Phnom Penh gave in as U.S. government pressure mounted. Roland Eng, Cambodia's former ambassador to the U.S., told American journalist Ron Gluckman last year that the U.S. threatened Cambodia: "The U.S. told us that there would be no more visas issued, and our kids couldn't go to school in America. They forced the deal on us." Since then, 212 Cambodian-Americans have been deported under IRRIRA, and back in the U.S. between 1,400 and 2,000 Cambodian-Americans could be kicked out at any time.

Some of the Cambodian-Americans now living in Phnom Penh with K.K. have been deported for aggravated felonies as minor as shoplifting and public urination. The law is also retroactive, meaning many had already finished their prison sentences and started rebuilding their lives in the U.S. before finding out that they would be deported. Sophea Heng, 28, who goes by his nickname Wicked, completed his yearlong prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon in 2001, but was immediately transferred to an immigration detention center where he was held without a release date for two years. Wicked was only released after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a related case that Cambodian Kim Ho Ma could not be held indefinitely while awaiting deportation to a country that wouldn't accept him. For the next year and half, he kept clean, started college and found a new job, until one day the Immigration and Naturalization Service contacted him to fill out some forms. When he left the house, he had no idea that his time in America was up. "When I arrived they arrested me on the spot," he said. "I did everything I was supposed to do." Before Wicked knew it, he was in Cambodia.

All of the Cambodian-American deportees like K.K. and Wicked were given permanent residency in the U.S. as refugees or children of refugees; they were not in the U.S. illegally. But in many cases, their parents, new immigrants themselves, never went through the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. K.K. did not know he wasn't a U.S. citizen until he was convicted. After being dropped off in Cambodia with no support, K.K. volunteered to be part of the outreach staff at Korsang, a local NGO that has employed about a quarter of the Cambodian-American deportees. K.K. started visiting the slums of Phnom Penh and educating Cambodians about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS. When word spread that he was once a champion breakdancer in the U.S., he says a group of kids he was working with kept asking him for dance lessons. "On the third time the kids came to my house, I gave it a try," K.K. said, "And that's how Tiny Toones started."

That was December 2004. In less than five years, the organization has grown to reach more than 5,000 kids every year at its six sites, most in the heart of Phnom Penh's slums. Though Tiny Toones started off as a breakdancing group, it quickly expanded to include computer literacy, art, HIV/AIDS prevention, and lessons in English and Khmer, the local language. "We're using hip-hop," says Randy Sary, 28, who works at Tiny Toones. "After we get kids in, we have other programs like English and Khmer. You can't just be athletic. You have to be educated." K.K. plans to grow Tiny Toones even more, hoping to open a school for at-risk children by 2011. "A real, decent school that doesn't charge. One with a cafeteria that serves breakfast and lunch, like when I was kid," he said.

For every success story like K.K. — and he's not the only one — there are more who are just eking out a living in their new home, and a few that just couldn't make the transition. Ver Chan, 33, whom Holly Bradford describes as a "sweet, gentle kid," was sent to Cambodia. In December 2007 — just shy of a year in country — he hung himself after struggling with bipolar disorder in Cambodia, where he couldn't get access the medicine he needed. Just this year, the U.S. deported another Cambodian-American with severe psychological problems. "The U.S. knew that these people had psychological problems. They had them on meds," says Bill Herod, director of the Returnee Assistance Program (RAP) from 2002 to 2005. "To deport them without any warning or medication... that's a violation of their human rights."

Since 2002, one other deportee is suspected of committing suicide and two others have been murdered, one of which happened after a deportee got involved with local criminals. Bradford, who was Chan's boss at Korsang, lays the blame for the suicides squarely on the U.S. government. "The guys that come here, they're products of American society," says Bradford. "They're American responsibility, end of story."